Lotus, Ron Hickman and nearly no GT40

If a well-known sports car manufacturer and two people had it their way in 1963 there wouldn’t have been a GT40.

Here’s the story. It all begins with South African, Ron Hickman, born in 1932 and who grew up in the small town of Greytown in the Natal province.

An accomplished pianist, by age 17 he’d become an Associate of the Trinity College of Music in London, with a Pianoforte Performer’s Diploma. A natural designer, he used to carve car models from wood and to earn pocket money he would draw cars for their owners. After school he joined the Department of Justice and for the next six years was trained in all aspects of the law. Suddenly in 1955 Ron felt he couldn’t handle the excitement of the legal profession, borrowed a 100 pounds from his father and set sail for England, like many young South Africans at the time who wanted experience of the bigger picture in the Northern Hemisphere.

Because of his music background the only company name he knew in London was Boosey & Hawkes, distributors of musical instruments. He stopped by and asked for a job and as luck would have it there was a vacancy in the accounts department. He was asked to report to the appropriately named Miss B Sharp (honest!) and for the time being the young Ron at least had an income.

Then one day a newfound friend told him that there was an advert in a London newspaper, placed by Ford of Great Britain, looking for clay modellers. Ron rushed over to Ford and got the job. After seven months he was offered a job as stylist, no mean achievement for a young man without a formal art qualification!

Apart from working on well-known Ford products including the Anglia there were plans for an Anglia based sports car mainly for the American market, but as Austin-Healey, MG and Triumph were already well established in that market Ford dropped the idea.

A meeting with Lotus boss, Colin Chapman, at the 1956 London Motor Show led to Ron joining Lotus in 1958. His first task was to get the Elite, which had suffered a long gestation period, into production and it wasn’t long after that he found himself as general manager and a director of Lotus. <P>His next assignment was the Lotus Elan, a car that he designed and named. The new open two seater had retractable headlights, moulded bumpers and a one piece body shell, all unique features for a sports car of that time.

In 1963 Ron got wind of Ford of America looking for an experienced British race car constructor to build a Ford racer capable of winning at Le Mans. Ron gave the news to Colin Chapman and quickly styled a mid-engined sports racer to show Ford. Given the close association between Ford and Lotus at the time, both Chapman and Hickman felt that they were in with a chance. The scales, however, tipped towards Eric Broadley who actually had a Ford powered mid-engined car on the track and was therefore essentially ahead of Lotus in the race for the contract. As we all now know The Lola GT was effectively the surrogate mother of the GT40. If there hadn’t been such a constraint on time the deal could have gone to Lotus but another factor that could have caused a clash of wills is that Colin Chapman would have insisted on the car being called a Lotus-Ford whereas Ford wanted its own brand name. In the end fate intervened and we now have our beloved GT40. CLOSE CALL!

After losing out to Lola, Colin Chapman said that he liked Ron’s design any way and that they should build the car. The final production version was the smaller, lighter and more refined Lotus Europa.

Ron left Lotus at the end of 1967 to start his own designs company but back in 1961 had started work on a small fold-up workbench that could clamp wood and other materials. As all designers know the big break doesn’t come easily and after four years of battling to market his invention Ron signed up a deal with Black & Decker and his workbench became known as the Workmate. To date some 65 million B&D Workmates have been sold world-wide and it’s no secret that Ron has made a great deal of money from his invention. Today he lives with his wife of 43 years, Helen, in a magnificent 20,000 square foot house in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

For the second Workmate prototype Ron used Elan wishbones on either side of the frame in a vertical position. Bet you didn’t know that the Lotus Elan and the B&D Workmate were ‘related’.

In 1994 Ron was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Services to Industrial Innovation. Not bad for a lad who borrowed 100 pounds from his dad to go north!

I met up with Ron at the September, 2000 Revival Meeting at Goodwood and afterwards spent three days with him and Helen in Jersey. The Revival Meeting at Goodwood just has to be the ultimate classic motor race event in the world.

I attach three photos. In the photo, with Ron in his study, the proposed racer can be seen top left on the wall with the number ‘1’ and the family resemblance to the Lotus Europa is clearly evident. The second pic is of Ron with his own Elan and a commemorative B&D Workbench, the 25th million if I remember correctly. The third pic was taken at that unbelievable Goodwood Revival Meeting and shows a collection of Lotus cars including Jim Clark’s Indy car. At a later stage I’ll report more fully on that event, which is a must visit for classic motor racing fans.

Keep going,
Andre 40

Andre - I have removed the image reference to an FTP site that was causing the logon pop up. If you would like to try to include the photos, please contact me and I will help you get them uploaded - Lynn
 
Andre - Great story! Thanks to that insightful info I just rushed out to get a Workmate so I could avoid the hassles of building my own wishbones for my GT40 project. Now can you advise me where to get some uprights? Thanks. Best regards, Orin Meyer
 
Whoa there, buddy!

There's an FTP thing attempting to happen to my computer when I load this thread!!!

That's bad!

Somebody needs to fix that! I think that Andre 40 has a link to an FTP thing in his post.

Your pal,
Meat.
 
Andre,

A couple of years back I had the opportunity to take a look around the Lotus factory and facilities in some detail, and while there I noticed 3 old prefab buildings with dusty cobweb laden windows. After asking I was informed that they were stores for old prototype, and that we weren't allowed access. I did however peer through the dusty windows, and inside were large quantities of bucks and prototypes stacked 4 high....including Elan... and yes.... Europa prototypes....

I wonder if the very first original designs/prototype by Ron as a precursor to Eric Broadley's involvement still resides in there?

Now wouldn't that be an interesting thing to own....!

Neil
 
Neil,

It’s always exciting to go through dusty. old stores and to find old bucks, moulds and prototypes. In July last year I had a similar experience when I scratched through piles of moulds at Franco Sbarro’s factory in Grandson, Switzerland.

Franco has designed and built 167 cars since 1965 and at 60 something he’ been there, done and has the t-shirt. I get the feeling that he’s now keen to enter into under-license deals so that royalties from the deals could provide a useful pension fund. We are looking at four of his projects.

Franco built an unusual GT40 with the tail section hinged at the back of the cockpit and which lifts upwards. He also has a conventional Mk1 in his museum. I’ll post a pic when I get used to this internet business. I’ve only been into windows for only the past few years but it’s thanks to www.GT40s.com that I’ve been launched into the internet big time. Thanks for your comment, Dazzle, about FTP or something. All Greek to me but one day I’ll learn!

With regard to the posting of the pics I met a three foot tall fellow with green complexion and pop out eyes who assured me that Mars had the concession for posting pics on the GT40 website. It’s thanks to him that I finally manage to post the pics of Ron Hickman, etc.

As far as I can remember the only effort by Ron and Colin Chapman to secure the Ford contract was just the one drawing by Ron as shown in the photo.

Best wishes,
Andre 40
 
Andre 40, Great story! I have a soft spot for the Lotus Europa in my heart. I've owned three of them and raced one from 1971 to 1981. Painted them up in Gulf colors. I was as close to a GT 40 as I could get.. mid engine & a coupe'. It was always a struggle to keep them going...light and fragile. The rear axles were the big problem. They would wear out by the end of a twenty lap race and give me some wild over-steer. I solved that problem by installing Chevy Corvair stub axles.
I got to drive a Lotus 47 once, that car was nice.. didn't take long to get the right hand driving position mastered.
Keep the stories coming!
 
[ QUOTE ]
As far as I can remember the only effort by Ron and Colin Chapman to secure the Ford contract was just the one drawing by Ron as shown in the photo.

[/ QUOTE ]

As I've heard the story from Ron, he drew a picture of what he thought the mid-engine car might look like and put it on the wall behind his desk so the folks from Ford would see the sketch when visited.

Later on, that sketch was turned into the Lotus Europa. In 1969 Lotus built a one-off Europa with a V8 capable of 0-100 MPH in 10 seconds.
 
For what it's worth, it's interesting (and rarely mentioned) that there is a link between the design history of the Ford GT40 and the Lotus Europa.

The body of the Lola GT MK6, the 'mother' of the GT40, which was chosen by Ford instead of any Lotus offering, was designed by John Frayling. The Lola was already racing, whereas the Lotus was still just a drawing on Ron Hickman's wall.

John Frayling had previously designed the Lotus Elite. After penning the Lola GT, he went on to help Ron Hickman with the design of the Lotus Elan - AND the Lotus Europa.

Cheers!

Rob
PS John also designed the Enfield Electric. From another thread I see that working on the Enfield project at the time was none other than our friend Andre /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/shocked.gif!
 
That's the amazing conundrum about Sbarro. On the one hand, he is an automotive engineering innovator and craftsman with few equals. BUT on the other hand, he has engaged in numerous automotive shenanigans--Sbarro built GT40s claimed as originals in at least four instances--that sully what would otherwise be a sterling reputation.
 

Pete McCluskey.

Lifetime Supporter
Another terrific story Andre thanks. But really miss B Sharp? I knew her sister miss Treble Clef /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif
 
Hi Everyone,

Thanks Lynn for recycling the Hickman story. I'm so dumb with computers that when you talk about FTP and the issues you raised in your private e-mail I haven't a clue, I just know how to press some buttons. In fact you're from Norwegian descent and now you talk Greek to me! Perhaps it's best that I post the pics. I have two more to add.

In my little world FTP could mean FORD TOPS POLL or FANGIO TOOK PILLS or FITTIPALDI TAKES POLE or FERRARI TAMES PORSCHE!

For some technical reason when I did the original post I couldn't post pics and got my computer expert neighbour, Denys Earp-Jones, to post the pics.

BenL you are dead right. Ron obviously told you the same story.

Rob Beddington, I'm sure wears a deerstalker and smokes a curved pipe! He's an amazing mine of information. Yes, I did work on the Enfield electric car project in London in 1967/68 and Lola MK6 and Lotus Elite stylist, the New-Zealand born John Frayling designed the body for us. That was a most interesting development and when I have time I'll post the story. Ronald Reagan driving an Enfield electic.Yep.True.

Pete, when Ron told me the story about Miss B Sharp I told him to pull the other leg but he insists that it was absolutely true.

Sometimes names fit. For many years until mergers in the Cape Town undertaking industry there was a firm of undertakers with the name of Human & Pitt. Until recently the head of South Africa's largest corrugated board manufacturer was Bill McCartan. Thene there' Paddy Driver who raced bikes and cars, including GT40s. About 30 years ago the lady book keeper in a company for which I worked was Mrs Addinall (add-in-all).

Cobraowner- yes, Sbarro????!!!!

Best wishes,
Andre 40
 
Ron in his study. The drawing on the left is of the concept car that Ron hoped that Ford would accept as their Le Mans winning car. When Ford turned down Lotus in favour of Lola's Eric Broadley, Colin Chapman told Ron that he liked the shape and that they should build it in any case. Ron and John Frayling then turned the car into the Lotus Europa.
 

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That's me with Ron's 1931 Cadillac V-16 that used belong to an Indian Maharajah.

Ron warned me that the two ton monster suffered from massive understeer and that when I saw a bend coming up in the distance I had to start cranking the steering wheel which was quite a mission on some of Jersey's narrow roads. Apart from that the car was super smooth with easy pedals and a joy to drive. An unusual feature is a speedometer for the rear seat passengers. Perhaps the Maharajah would clonk his driver on the head if he went too fast!
 

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So now there's a challenge for you. Design something like a Black & Decker Workmate, sell plenty and live in a house like this!

Friends and I have often questioned where Utopia actually is
and no matter what country you think of a downside will pop up.

IMHO Jersey in the Channel Islands comes close!
 

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Is it my imagination or does the BMW M1 look a lot like the Lotus Europa, at least from the rear view? maybe my eyes are just getting fuzzy....
 
Hi Jim,

Yes, there is a similarity and talking of which don't you think that many of the Japanese and Korean cars are so similar in appearance that they could come out of he same factory. If one were to look at photos of the dark grey dashboards it would be difficult to tell them apart.

By comparison in the 1960s dashboards of Wolseleys, DKWs, Borward Isabellas, Alfa-Romeos, Renaults, American Fords, to name but a few were totally individualistic and therefore easily identifiable.

Any comments?

Best,
Andre 40
 
Re: Lotus, Ron Hickman and nearly no GT40/ RIP Ron Hickman


Ron Hickman

Known to the wider public as the inventor of the Workmate, Hickman who died on 17 February aged 78 will always be remembered by petrolheads as the man behind the Lotus Elan.

A talented pianist whose abiding love was drawing cars, Hickman came to Britain from South Africa in 1955, finding work at Ford, as a stylist. A meeting with Colin Chapman led to Hickman’s Lotus career where he rapidly became a director and the mercurial Lotus founder’s right hand man. His Lotus Elan with its central backbone chassis and independent suspension overcame the torsional stiffness problems of Chapman’s earlier Elite. The Lotus Europa also came from Hickman’s pen.

Originally Lotus’s submission to Ford, which was looking for a specialist to build its projected Le Mans racer (in the end Ford went to Eric Broadley’s Lola) Lotus refined the concept to put the mid engined 47 into production.

Nine years of Lotus which teetered perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy were enough for Hickman who resigned to concentrate on his own designs including a folding workbench. After struggling to market it, he sold the design to Black & Decker, reputedly earning a royalty of £1 on each one sold and became a rich man. His stunning designer home on Jersey is a tribute to Hickman’s irrepressible creativity.

courtesy the Octane website:
Ron Hickman: 1933-2011
 
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